“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”
Where to start with The Sellout. A satire on racism in America, and a story of one man’s battle to put his home town back on the map with the help of a little slavery and segregation. The man in question is Mee (Me) aka Bonbon. A young man who spends his time growing weed and watermelon. He has grown up a living experiment himself, with a college professor father who was the founder of his own form of psychology – Liberation Psychology, as well as a local branch of high thinkers: the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals.
Me’s testing started at birth with, for example, one conditioning test when baby involved placing toy police cars, Nixon badges etc whilst firing gun into ceiling and shouting at his soon to go back to Africa ‘ loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the living room. To this day I’ve never been able to sit through even the most mundane TV crime drama, I have a strange affinity with Neil Young ….’
When, in later life, his father is gunned down by police, he deals with this lose the only way he know how, by trying to restore his hometown of Dickens to the map, by re-drawing town boundaries and re instituting slavery and segregation. The slavery is not his idea. That us the idea of Hominy, a former child star from The Little Rascals a group of black actors who were pivotal in cinema’s silent and early talkies period for portraying black stereotype characters on screen. Me saves him from a suicide attempt and as a result Hominy is ‘unable to distinguish between himself and the corny, I owe you my life, I’ll be your slave’ trope’. Of course he demands to be whipped too (a task Me outsources to a local escort). Hominy’s character is a fascinating one, based as it is on the true existence of the rascals. Indeed, the Our Gang comedy shorts history is a fascinating one (as proved by Julia Lee’s excellent recent book: Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals)
So, how does Me go about his task? Well he starts by trying to reverse the Rosa Park’s bus desegregation then moves onto business placing No Whites Allowed signs, the Public Library becoming white only half the week and coloured only the rest of the week; The local cinema allowing whites downstairs and coloured only in the circle/balcony upstairs; and then sets his sights on the local school, where he pointedly observes ‘ How do you racially segregate an already segregated school ‘. This is a world where the explicit racism of old has most been replaced by the implicit institutional forms of that same racism today.
This is a great read. It is an intelligent, pointed and often biting look at the whole issue of racism in America and of the issue of black identity, in particular what it means to be black in America today. Like the best satire it takes a deeply serious subject matter and picks at convention and logic so that you’re being made to think even as you laugh. And you do laugh. Beatty’s book is not just genuinely funny, it’s consistently funny. From it’s opening paragraphs with Me saying: ‘ This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never …’ before listing a collection of crimes and misdemeanors disproportionately associated with black men and these things in the media, this is a book that is as funny as it is provocative. And it is provocative, especially in its questioning of the whole segregation issue. As Me says at one point: ‘I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.’
If I’m totally honest I think the book’s final quarter flagged a bit for me in comparison to what comes before, but it is certainly a conversation starter – although one might caution against quoting too liberally from it out loud in polite or indeed impolite company. Great to see it on the Booker long-list and I’d say it’s a decent bet for the shortlist too.
“You know, massa, Bugs Bunny wasn’t nothing but Br’er Rabbit with a better agent”.